Baby Driver

The assistance of a driver simply known as ‘Baby’ is the best case scenario for the criminal underworld, looking for the fastest route out. In “Baby Driver”, the newest from critically acclaimed writer/director Edgar Wright, A young and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) relies on the personal beat of his preferred soundtrack, to be the best in the world of crime, as music heightens his focus and reflexes to extreme levels. A car accident as a child killed both his parents, and left him with permanent tinnitus, which he blocks out using music. He is preferred as a driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a mastermind organizer of bank robberies and other high-earning heists. During the biggest mission of Baby’s career, he finds himself and his loving girlfriend Debora (Lily James) in grave danger at the hands of some rough customers who want him dead when Baby decides to flee town. “Baby Driver” is rated R for adult language and violence throughout.

Edgar Wright, take a bow. After nearly twenty years of directing both feature length films and brilliant cinematic shorts, the master of satirical modern comedy dons his absolute best film to date, in the adrenaline powder-keg known as “Baby Driver”. As far as cinematic experiences go, this is easily the most fun thus far that I have had in a movie in 2017, and is only really matched or topped in my six year critic career by that of “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Wright is the kind of director who always seems to pull one over on his audiences, advertising and marketing a movie one way and then completely peeling it back to show you the never-ending multitude of layers that his stories boost for themselves. To define “Baby Driver” as just a satirical comedy on 70’s speed flicks, or smash-em, crash-em big budget carnage films of modern day, is doing this movie the greatest disservice that I could possibly muster up. It’s a play on a magnitude of genres, never settling for constant direction, and this gives the movie a kind of playground where all of these tonal shifts can meet and play as one, an aspect nearly impossible without suffering compromising damage to the film’s integrity. But it serves as a testament to Wright for not only being a name that makes us perk up when we hear he’s got a new film coming out, but also one that proves his versatility is only getting started.

Even after seeing trailer after trailer for this film, it still manages to have a strong ambiguity quality about its plot that makes it feel like nothing has been spoiled. In the first act of the movie, Wright kind of just introduces all of the essential chess pieces on the board and has them play up to their moral fiber safely, and for a second you feel like you are typically getting the story you were promised. In Baby, we meet a young man who feels stuck in a job that he knows is wrong, but he keeps doing it to pay off a debt to a crime lord boss who took a chance on him. This is probably the lone critique of the movie that you will hear from me, because unfortunately we never really hear much else about this expositional past between Elgort and Spacey’s characters that maximizes the importance of this crossroads that the title character is on. Thankfully, the second half of the movie did more than enough to make me forget about such miniscule negatives. It’s in the second act when you start to understand the evolution of this story and how little you truly know about where it’s headed. With some surprising brutality twists along the way, this one constantly kept my eyes glued to the screen, pacing itself out accordingly across 108 minutes that felt about half of that. The ending itself might sour some audiences, but I found it to be responsible with the dark and twisted alleys that the film’s third act took us down. In Edgar Wright’s world, it’s understood that there are consequences for every action, unlike other crime films that make the existence of cops feel like a joke.

What Wright does with a pen and a pad is impressive, but I would say takes a silver medal to that of his mesmerizing scope behind the camera. This movie doesn’t just play safely to the genre’s standards, it completely re-defines them in how each and every little shot maximizes the potential of each sequence even further. The editing here is textbook, garnering a quality about it that illustrates and combines the importance of quick-cut jabs to reflect the modern age, and a forceful close-up occasionally to reflect that of 70’s chase flicks like “Duel”. This gives the action sequences a monitor for us to tell that it’s fully beating and increasing in pumps with each passing dodge. On top of this, there are some impressive long take shots during character confrontations that proved Wright has a lot of faith in his star-studded cast. Because our view is with the camera’s, we often get to immerse ourselves in each ever-passing environment that has engulfed these unpredictable situations. A credit to this camera work is that we never once see one robbery in the movie, but we feel like we’re with these characters through every bullet fired. The sound mixing is also quite impressive for the kind of tricks that it plays on our own ears, making us feel Baby’s situation front-and-center. Music will occasionally drop out in volume if a shot is taking place outside of the car, and this is respectable because it would otherwise feel fake if we hear the same kind of volume outside that the characters do inside of the car. Edgar also pays attention to Baby’s peculiarity because we get several examples of the muddled “Hum-in-the-drum” that has left him somewhat impared, and it’s in that stance where we feel more personal with a protagonist than other films can get. We’re hearing what he hears, so when the music hits, it sounds so much sweeter.

On the subject of that music, “Baby Driver” boosts a collection of mostly classic ballads and toe-tapper funk grooves that is sure to have you fighting back the urge to mouth the words to some of your favorite jams. The cleverness comes out of how each song shapes not only the tone, but the editing of each and every scene. If there’s a drum beat that is constant in the song Baby is jamming out to, it becomes evident that we too will be treated with the riddling of bullets richocheting to the bass of such a powerful audio level. There’s also some clever Easter eggs along the way that add lyrics to the song that is being listened to at any given moment. For instance, during the scene where Baby walks to the diner for his first meeting with Debora, we see scattered lyrics all around the sidewalk, windows, and street signs that he passes by. This gives the movie some quality re-watches to see just what in the backdrop you may have missed upon initial watches.

But a film this impactful would be nothing without a charismatic cast that guides it through these often entertaining waters, and thankfully this collection of heralded A-listers know a valuable chance when they see one. For anyone who thought Ansel Elgort’s most memorable role would be Augustus Waters in 2014’s “The Fault In Our Stars”, you have no idea the oral crime you just committed. As Baby, Elgort unlocks a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma, and because there’s so much personality to his character, it’s the spunk and likeability of a leading man that he lends his talents to marvelously. Elgort proves he can hang with the big names by giving us a character who constantly evolves into being a product of his environment, and when the tough get going, Baby is no infant. Two other members who I want to praise are Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm for completely stealing the show. Not that either of them need help in their careers, but their roles in this movie are the shot of adrenaline that both need from being typecast into the safe roles that have plagued their careers. Foxx dominates the first half of the movie as a menacing robber who always has his finger on the pulse of everyone involved. Because of such, he’s kind of a leader who always likes to stir the pot, and I found him to be authentic in his push for greed. Hamm too is a worthy opposition, but not until later in the movie do we see his truest of colors. In fact, the movie tells us all we need to know about Hamm’s character when he’s not living up to that immense shadow, but treat this as a warning because you will never look at Don Draper the same way again.

THE VERDICT – “Baby Driver’s” tank never runs close to being empty, taking us on a fast-paced thrill-ride that will have you holding onto your seat, afraid to take that breath of release for fear you might miss a delightful peak on auditory capabilities. There’s enough firepower and unpredictability in the mastery of Edgar Wright’s closely-guided touch to keep it from ever stalling, and the personalities from some of Hollywood’s finest make this one impossible not to want to strap in. Even if you just seek a movie to shut your brain off, “Baby Driver” will take the challenge one step further by astonishing you at every feat of the technical specter. Mister Wright can do no wrong.

9/10

Lowriders

In southern Los Angeles, the lower you go the better in the competition that has the Mexican-American community battling for prestigious rights. In “Lowriders”, Set against the vibrant backdrop of East LA’s near-spiritual car culture, Danny (Gabriel Chavarria) is a talented young street artist who is caught between the lowrider underworld inhabited by his old-school father (Demi├ín Bichir) and ex-con brother Ghost (Theo Rossi), and the adrenaline-fueled outlet of graffiti art that defines his self-expression. When Danny’s life comes to a crossroads, he must make the decision between family and family to steer him on the right path towards an ambitious future. “Lowriders” is directed by Ricardo de Montreuil in his first feature film, and is rated PG-13 for adult language, some violence, sensuality, thematic elements and brief drug use.

“Lowriders” approaches the concepts and the histories of one of automobile’s most prolific models and spins it into a family drama that is equally as compelling as it is informative. For the first half hour of this movie, I really didn’t know what to expect, but was slightly worried that this movie would serve more as a biopic for its automotive title character, and less about the spinning web of family tangling going on within the picture. Thankfully, my worries were put to rest, as de Montreuil’s film is a portrait on the struggles of family grief, as well as a front-and-center love-letter to the kind of arts and concepts that go into the car. From Ricardo’s point-of-view, the car is really just the table dressing to the main course that simmers underneath the hood. The real story is in the trio of family characters here whose pasts have set them on different sides of the tracks respectively. There’s a real understanding of the essence not only in the Mexican-American community and its families, but also in that of Southern Los Angeles for the visual spectre and feels of this melting pot that constantly keeps on boiling for its many of stories under one roof. This is just one of those stories, and it brought me enough suitable entertainment for 93 minutes that it’s really difficult to ever begrudge it for the few things it does misfire on.

What I enjoy about the narrative is that we as an audience are coming into this story with the past already playing a pivotal meaning in the relationships between each of the sons with his Father. Danny as a protagonist is kind of that young adult who is at a crossroads within his own life, so when the return of his absent Brother comes into play, we immediately see the effects of such an influence in his own life. For me, the most compelling aspect of this movie was between the divided relationship of Ghost and his Father, which took the movie on slightly more serious turns than what the gimmick of lowriders could do for the story. It’s in this subplot where we attain the knowledge of just how important these man-made structures are to the overall enlightenment of the audience watching at home, and for me it was during the brief interaction between these two when the movie prospers the most. The film doesn’t necessarily paint Ghost as this villain character, instead choosing to focus on the positives and negatives within each of the three main characters. After he gets out of prison, his actions dictate the kind of person and influence that he wants to be to Danny, and this is where the film nearly lost me in the shuffle of conventionalism that felt like it was playing desperately to studio needs.

The film does at times feel slightly by-the-numbers, in that you can see the outline of the predictable story, even if it takes some unorthodox methods of attaining this status. The second act of the film is definitely the dullest for me in terms of wiggle room for this outline, and suddenly there are some vast character shifts that kind of alienate the equal moral compass that the film once prescribed for itself. There is also a romantic interest for Danny introduced in the form of Melissa Benoist that felt shoe-horned in, and assured even more of such towards the end of the movie when it’s never brought up again after their “Routine” couple drama that happens in every movie for the sake of it. It’s nothing that I could fault it for too much, but if you’ve seen one of these kind of hard knocks lifestyle movies, you’ve seen them all, and “Lowriders” does very little to distance itself from an overcrowded genre that feels like we’ve seen everything by this point. The final act does pick itself up slightly, and there’s enough mystery and intrigue in the film’s closing minutes to put the story back to where it needs to be first and foremost; the dramatic circumference between this family’s tangled web that desperately needs healing. Without spoiling too much, I think the ending satisfied this craving while adding enough uncertainty between them that feeds into ideals of cleansing, in that not everything is as simple as open and shut.

One aspect to the movie that did fruitfully achieve the Los Angeles color palate was that of the shot composition and overall cinematography by Andres Sanchez that really illuminated this picture. There’s a constant tinge of yellow to the film’s illustration, radiating the always sunny backdrop of Southern L.A that shines on its blacktop streets. The camera work here is carefully depicted in that it has that grainy kind of visual to it, but moves fluently with and around our characters to capture the cheap essence of an independent movie. This is a worthy choice to me because pristine visuals that are too clean will sometimes spoil the feel of the environment that the movie’s creative engine is trying to depict. Because of such, de Montreuil feels like the right man for the job in constructing the right visual tones for the film that depict the city of angels as a character in itself. A place where the streets can make or break you, depending on which one you take.

As for performances, “Lowriders” has a solid Mexican-American dominated cast that more-than gladly took the ball and ran with their meaty characters. Demian Birchir is someone we’re starting to see more of, with recent turns in “The Hateful Eight”, as well as “Alien: Covenant”, but he feels most at home with family drama as gritty as this. Birchir’s pop character has lost a lot in his life, most notably his wife who passed away off-screen, so the values that he tries to store upon Danny feel like the only thing he has left. Birchir is warm and humble as this father figure, but not afraid to raise his tones when he feels threatened, a true Father figure if there ever was one. As for youthful approaches, Chavarria takes his first lead in a major motion picture, and Rossi once again steals the show as a sneaky antagonist we love to hate. On the former, Danny is every bit the kind of typical protagonist you expect to see in these films, often times making the stupid decisions to cater to his youth, but the slow aging of how Chavarria supplants this character is what makes him profitable to this story. Rossi himself can do so much in a look that tells you everything you need to know about his character, and as far as visual traits go, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Hollywood who can stare into the camera emoting such deceit.

THE VERDICT – “Lowriders” does muddle occasionally in predictably shallow waters in overall plot structure, but the film’s warm-hearted peak into an often under-executed Mexican-American setting, and authentic visual presentation more than make up for some of the short-comings that can hinder it from going the full mile. Ricardo de Montreuil’s film doesn’t feel forced to keep the story on the road, instead choosing to focus on the ardent entanglements of forgiveness that has plagued this family’s future.

7/10

Beatriz at Dinner

The least unlikely of guests is pulling up a seat at the upper class table to shake things up, in “Beatriz at Dinner”. Beatriz (Salma Hayek), an immigrant from a poor town in Mexico, has drawn on her innate kindness to build a career as a health practitioner in Southern California among the cultural elite. Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) is a real estate developer whose cutthroat tactics have made him a self-made, self-satisfied billionaire. When these two polar opposites meet at a dinner party, their worlds collide in a battle of classification, and neither will ever be the same. As the night progresses, secrets get exposed, and the two’s differences soon are brought to the table, as money is the one true difference between them. “Beatriz at Dinner” is directed by Miguel Arteta, and is rated R for adult language and a scene of violence.

There are films that often depict the differences and gentrification among our two societies; upper and lower class, but none have rarely ever left the resonating sting that Arteta’s film leaves us with only moments after the final shot. “Beatriz at Dinner” is very much a film about encounters, whether they be once in a lifetime, or that rare occasion that fate has marked your path with a particular person for the rest of time. We consider these engagements as nothing more than coincidence, but this movie tugs at the spiritual reckoning a bit more, provoking a thought from within if such a clash is indeed fate. As a character, Beatriz considers herself meant to heal the people she touches physically and mentally every day, but we slowly learn a little bit more about her past, which makes the shot-in-the-dark chance of seeing a prominent figure from that era all the more breathtaking, considering the population and the immensity of our growing planet. The question of fate feels engaging enough here for the audience, especially considering there’s so much more to this story that makes up where this vital 75 minutes of screen time takes us.

I was very taken aback by just how layered the team-up of Arteta and screenwriter Mike White focus in on this elegant dinner party that never runs low on awkward exchanges. Because of such, the tense atmospheric vibes in the air always ring the loudest, even so much as to override the prestigious occasion of what the characters are all here to celebrate. Despite me being leaps-and-bounds away from these people in classification, I found myself commending the film’s plotting for how its conversations and reactions felt so authentic with that of the upper class and what they deem important to the consequences of those suffering from their wealth. Whether White intended for this to be a comedy or not, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with how much I delighted in the snobbery that overtook these scenes repeatedly, and the reaction of Hayek’s Beatriz, who feels like the only human element between them all. So often was the ignorance of this brigade brought out in the way they ignored, and even talked over that of Beatriz every time she had a thought to bring to the table.

From a screenplay perspective, the film feels like a stage play to me, in that the conversations and story rarely ever move away from the group, choosing instead to document all of the interaction for its importance later on in the closing minutes. Everything that we hear from the pasts of these polar opposite characters, is shaping everything that you need to know about their respectively contrasting perspectives. This effect in sequencing does wonders for the performances, particularly in that of Lithgow and Hayek who radiate everything combative in a current-Trump Americana, but there is a kind of unfortunate compromise within this direction that comes with how everything flows through the three acts. The film has three different encounters that surround this dinner, and the routine of each becomes clearly transparent with each passing scene, operating on a wash, rinse, repeat cycle that couldn’t be more evident. Because Beatriz will sometimes get up and leave the group, it feels like the tension must start over before the next sequence, instead of flowing naturally for one huge ball of fire explosion at the end.

This of course brings me to the biggest negative within the film; the ending itself. Considering this is a film that barely reaches over an hour, the finale itself will definitely be the most memorable aspect to the movie, and unfortunately it finished with a bad taste in my mouth that is still digesting. Without spoiling it, the inevitable confrontation between Lithgow and Hayek becomes apparent, but the movie would rather throw a shock factor twist in the screenplay, instead of approaching this with the honesty and earnestness needed to hammer its importance home. Because of such, there are kind of two endings to this film. The first one, I was honestly fine with, despite its juxtaposition stance on tonal shifting that didn’t feel cohesive with the rest of the script. The second ending is dreadful on nearly every position, and won’t do anything for any of the audience expecting redemption. It just kind of fizzles out unfortunately and does very little for the previous 65 minutes that really held my attention firmly in its grasp.

Thankfully, the performances picked up my final grade of the movie, and conjured up some top-notch casting that didn’t disappoint. While the performances of Lithgow and Hayek dominate the movie, the entire group here involving names like Connie Britton and Chloe Sevingly each adding a meaty repertoire to their characters that certainly shape every upper class nightmare that we’ve ever imagined. Salma Hayek kills it here. Her Beatriz is a woman who has lived her life constantly around the greed and gluttony that has shaped her fire burning calmly underneath. When it spreads, we see a force beneath her smiling exterior, and it soon becomes apparent that she doesn’t care who she offends. John Lithgow is also a delight, despite being possibly the biggest asshole you will ever encounter. Lithgow plays this role soundly, despite the fact that I’ve never seen him as an antagonist in anything else. His timing and ignorance seemed to perk up at just the right times, and his snob never feels like a stereotype that is often depicted in these roles. Lithgow is the real deal, and fills in the shadow outlines accordingly for the antagonist that Beatriz deserves and relishes in pointing out the harm that his greed has caused.

THE VERDICT – “Beatriz at Dinner” has plenty to feast upon, but it’s mostly in the performances of its two leads, as well as an intoxicating atmosphere played out to an awkward sizzle that successfully cleanses our demanding palate. The ending feels like a missed opportunity of sorts, but the appropriately timed melodrama from Miguel Arteta is a provocative little independent movie that spreads awareness of the two ideals of the American dream, and how one feels slightly more important because of its over-indulgence on the color of green.

7/10

Paris Can Wait

Eleanor Coppola writes and directs her first film in “Paris Can Wait”, adding to a prestigious legacy of filmmakers in her decorated family. The movie stars Diane Lane as a Hollywood producer’s wife who unexpectedly takes a trip through France, which reawakens her sense of self and her joie de vivre. Anne Lockwood (Lane) is at a crossroads in her life. Long married to a successfully driven but inattentive movie producer, Michael (Alec Baldwin), she finds herself taking a car trip from Cannes to Paris with a business associate of her husband, Jacques (Arnaud Viard). What should be a seven-hour drive turns into a journey of discovery involving mouthwatering meals, spectacular wines, and picturesque sights that has them both on the edge of seduction to the city’s powers. Their playful flirting must soon be confronted, and where better than the city of lovers? “Paris Can Wait” is rated PG for thematic elements, smoking, and some adult language.

If you lack the funds or the motivation to see Paris in your life, “Paris Can Wait” might be just the film for you. Filled with enough French cuisine, wine, and landscapes to feed a small army, Eleanor Coppola undoubtedly holds a place this surreal closely to her heart, radiating a scheme in filmmaking aesthetics that sells everything put forth. Going into this movie, I knew very little about the set-up or the characters. It’s rare that I get a chance to completely ignore all of the trailers and just take in the movie for what is presented. I only wish that it were under slightly better circumstances. I can’t fault a filmmaker for their debut feature, especially when their last name is Coppola, but there’s many examples of growth being needed for the kind of patience in investment that this kind of movie takes on its audience. It’s an often times beautiful piece, not only in its presentation of seven course meals, but also in Eleanor’s vision behind the lens. But the compliments stop there, as this is (quite frankly) one of the driest scripts that has been given the big screen treatment in 2017.

For a romance, the sprinkling of a comedy in between the sometimes awkward tones of this movie is a welcome one. “Paris Can Wait” tells a story of two near-strangers stuck on a car ride together, but it takes great suspension of disbelief to even get to the start of this road trip fiasco. As a logical thinker, I can’t believe for a second that a man, even a workaholic, would let his beautiful wife get in the car with a good looking man on a cross-country journey, let alone soak up the obvious flirting that this male is bestowing upon her early on. As the film progresses, there was this feeling in the air of awkwardness between them, as Jacques comes across as someone meant to be a fantasy to the daydreaming woman watching beyond the screen, but doesn’t come across as the most progressive gentleman of the 21st century. Most of the interaction between them is Jacques delaying Anne time-after-time on what should be a one day trip, to entice her with French cultures. Being that Anne is married and that her husband hasn’t done anything completely unforgettable to her, it’s difficult to approach a protagonist from this kind of ground. Jacques often comes across as sneaky to me, conjuring up a plan miles ahead of the road to get one step closer to this married woman. So as a story, it’s not the most morally charming of romantic pieces.

Then there’s the biggest problem that glares its ugly head about midway through this 90 minute movie; there’s a great lack of conflict in the entirety of the film that grinds the progression of this journey to a screeching halt. The set-up is certainly there for a story like this to get juicy and offer the female moviegoer a kind of will-they, won’t-they kind of scenario similar to those in romance novels that peak the interest of them. The second act of this film is so dry that I often forgot why these two leads aren’t together in the first place. Then, like some remembering by the writer of what is set-up early on, the climax (If you can call it that) happens in the closing minutes of the movie, but by then this once steamy dish cools off to unsatisfying portions, and the film just kind of closes out without justifying the means of the mileage that it took to get to this point. What shocks me is that there are some subplots with Anne and Jacques about their pasts that are introduced far too late in the movie to make a difference, but prove that Coppola could’ve been onto something had she just paced her revelations out accordingly and put the character before the dish. These could’ve been the perfect sugar-coating steps to lead us to that passionate embrace, but the disjointed nature of its structure often times feels out of place and far too late to sting us with the tragedy of sorts that Coppola tries to hit us with. The ending was very malnourished, and was unpredictable for all of the wrong reasons both to the happiness of our characters and to the satisfaction in sending the audience home with a digesting of good feelings.

Where I will give kudos to Eleanor is in her scintillating sequencing of delicious dishes that had my mouth watering at every turn. A film like 2015’s “Chef” taught us that food in visual presentation can play a beautiful role accordingly to crafting the value of food and film that feels like a marriage too scrumptious not to happen. Coppola too gives in to that demand that every moviegoer should go home hungry, and because most of these foreign dishes are rare commodities for our domestic tastes, it makes it that much easier to fall under the spell of their sizzling steam. For depiction, Eleanor casts the camera slightly above that of the table and dish, so as to market a kind of Point-of-view angle to what we are seeing and taking in, putting us in the moment to live out our deepest fantasies. Food does kind of overstay its welcome from a script that is completely limp, but I do commend this movie greatly for giving me the kind of enticing visual specter that immersed me freely into this romance of edible seduction.

As for the performances, the chemistry between Lane and Viard works in such a way that radiates love, as well as friendship to the circumference of their earliest encounters. Viard breaks out early on, depicting a romantic in Jacques that constantly showcases a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. In Jacques, Viard has free reign as Anne’s (And our) tour guide of sorts, and seeing Paris through the eyes of a dreamer like this is intoxicating at the very least for his spontaneous movements. But just when you think Viard is steering the car, it is Lane who proves why she is versatile when it comes to any kind of tone. Early on, Lane’s Anne works out her comedic timing, echoing the kind of straight woman routine to Viard’s mad man romantic that perfectly captures a tense woman who doesn’t know if she should believe Jacques pure intentional speeches. But as the film wore on, there’s a dramatic side to Anne’s past that has clearly been bottled up under a woman who has said yes to far too many things she has disagreed with. We get a sense of sorts that life and her family have just kind of passed Anne by, so when she starts to partake excitedly in these adventures, it kind of serves as the therapy that this woman needs for some haunting past experiences that have shaped the woman we see before us.

THE VERDICT – A lot kind of ‘waits’ with Eleanor Coppola’s debut film at the tender age of 81. Most notably the conflict, plot, and resolutions all are put on hold for a visual fiesta of tasty portions that the audience are forced to swallow scene-after-scene. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the succulent snacks that adorned the screen. They are shot at such attention-grabbing angles that you often forget about the bland mess that is playing out opposite of it before your very eyes. If “Paris Can Wait” was a seven course meal, I only lasted through three before I was bloated full of this airless cinematic excursion. It’s like taking a bite of something terribly undercooked and hoping it will get better, only to find that it gets colder with each passing bite.

4/10

Transformers: The Last Knight

The key to saving the future is buried in the past of Camelot, in “Transformers: The Last Knight”. Michael Bay returns once again to helm the latest chapter of the Transformers franchise, this time conjuring up a story that proves only one world can survive. The film shatters the core myths of the Transformers franchise, and redefines what it means to be a hero. Humans and Transformers are at war, Optimus Prime is gone. The key to saving our future lies buried in the secrets of the past, in the hidden history of Transformers origins on Earth. Saving our world falls upon the shoulders of an unlikely alliance: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg); Bumblebee; an English Lord (Sir Anthony Hopkins); and an Oxford Professor (Laura Haddock) who all must act fast before our time on Earth comes to an abrupt ending. “Transformers: The Last Knight” is rated PG-13 for for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, adult language, and some sexual innuendo.

If this is in fact the fifth Transformers movie in this Bay-helmed series, then one would think that a majority of the problems that plagued the earlier movies should be solved by now, right? “The Last Knight” is without a doubt the very worst of this series that I have seen so far, and sets the bar to incredibly low depths for the inevitable sequels that are bound to follow. If I were to tell someone who hasn’t seen these movies everything that’s wrong with them, I would save them time and tell them to just watch this movie. It’s got everything; slow-motion action sequences that overstay their welcome, jarringly compromising tonal shifts that often make it difficult to decide what genre category this should fall under, wincingly vicious dialogue that falls completely flat around these one-dimensional characters, and a knack for over-complicating and convoluting every kind of plot and subplot that make up the script. I have yet to enjoy a Transformers live action movie, but this is the first that has made me legitimately angry leaving the film, and has me debating if I want to finally use my veto card for future installments.

These movies are certainly no easy feat in run time, this one clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, a basic average for this series. So of course this script has to be massive. To do this, we get a story that splits time between modern day and medieval times, the latter of which plays great importance to where this story is headed creatively. I’m fine with introducing new layers to this series to keep it fresh, but essentially this film is derived from every earlier movie before it; a high stakes game of capture the flag. In each movie, the Decepticons always invade Earth to capture something, and in this one it’s no different with the introduction of Merlin’s staf. What I don’t like about the writers establishing that Transformers were around throughout history is a two-fold problem. First, we as a civilization haven’t been able to learn their technology faster? and two, how can anyone keep a secret as big as robots invading over the course of 1600 years? The characters in the original movie (Government officers included) certainly seemed surprised upon the first invasion. But the film tries to be cute by establishing a secret society that have kept the robots from the eyes and ears of its people. If that’s the case, why has this society waited until the fifth invasion of the series to finally do something about it. What we’re they doing? biding their time? If this isn’t enough, there’s a noticeably big gap between Transformers fight sequences, as well as human character abandonment that overall attains a level of sloppiness that not even “Revenge of the Fallen” could attain quite so consistently.

The story is bad, but man does it pale in comparison to the overall dialogue composition that someone approved as being screen-ready. There are several problems that I have with the lines in the movie, but to sum it up, most of them drown on for far too long, fluffing out the run time extensively by never cutting to the point. On top of this, the progression halts every few minutes so a character can express their hollow personalities, or present a line of comedic dialogue to ruin the urgency of such matters. Some of the scenes that drove me crazy were when so much of the Staf’s history was being explained, and Anthony Hopkins character would stop to bicker with a robot, or take the boringly long route in conveying the importance of this piece. This script greatly needed another edit, so much so that my mind wandered repeatedly to how I would’ve shortened the long-winded releases that kept taking creative liberties, and gotten the same point across without the nauseating history lesson that followed. The comedy falls so flat most of the time in this film that I wish they would just leave it be. Michael Bay movies do have personality, but during a time of grave devastation for the world, it almost feels inappropriate that the movie would rather focus on the unlimitted cast of characters and making sure the audience knows that each and every one of them can be cooky and full of spunk.

On the subject of such characters, the problem of overcrowding continues in these movies, with about 90% of the film’s characters being brand new and needing valuable screen time to get their characters across. Considering this film violently shifts back and forth between the many groups, there’s just not enough valuable resources to bestow upon them to make their presence warranted. The most trivial for me was that of Laura Haddock. It’s true, her character is a valuable one when you think about what gets developed late in the second act of this movie, but the film does her zero favors in terms of material, often times serving as the prime argument for why women feel so alienated with their lack of female development in Michael Bay movies. Thankfully, we don’t get any close-up body footage here, but the film’s way of introducing her doesn’t paint her in the most likeable of lights early on, and throw her in the box of lost toys with other female leads by giving her a clumsily thrown together romance with Mark Wahlberg. Besides this, the additions of Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Moner were a positive and a negative respectfully. Hopkins is at least having fun in this role, so there’s not too much that I can condemn him for, but I could honestly do without his rambling which became insufferable and redundant once I decoded the set-up for it every time. Moner was the one character who I clung to because she channels the often ignored double sides of kids and female characters that Transformers hasn’t really capitalized on. It’s a discredit to the 15-year-old actress that we don’t get a lot of wiggle room with her in run time, but she does make the most of every scene, instilling an equal offering of intelligence and attitude in Izzy that make you want to stay with her character more than anyone else in this movie.

If Michael Bay can still do one thing gorgeously, it’s in his ability to depict high-priced action sequences that spare no expense in the effects department. The camera work is slightly too shaky-camera for me, but it’s passable enough that you can decifer what is going on in the sometimes convoluted field of battle. “The Last Knight” smashes us through buildings, wields many funnel clouds of explosions, and takes our breath away with some adrenaline-fueled intensity through the streets. The chase sequences in these scenes are a sight to behold, and were those rare moments that got me back into the movie when I felt I couldn’t take anymore of the poor pacing. A friend of mine recently mentioned on his podcast (WELKINONE.COM) that nobody else could do action at the level of intensity that Bay does, and I think I finally have to concede to him and give him his credit. Where Bay stumbles at nearly every other level of the directing capacity, he brilliantly takes the medal when it comes to capturing such devastation at a grand level, a true pioneer who has shaped action well into the 21st century.

THE VERDICT – “The Last Knight” is just that, the last night that I ever waste nearly three hours on a Michael Bay helmed Transformers. It’s a movie that summarizes everything wrong with the last ten years of his filmmaking career; Overstuffed and convoluted plot, cheesy cringeworthy dialogue, abuse of slow motion sequences that echo that of the snails pacing that drags on, and an overabundance of characters who most of which never get the proper development that they deserve to make an impact. Sure, the action is still there, but it’s such a small positive considering there are more than a couple of long spans in the script when the Transformers don’t appear. Haters of the series won’t be swayed by this effort, and true hardcore fans of the series will finally be tested to see just how deep their love is. If there is indeed more that meets the eye, consider me blind. I frankly don’t get it.

3/10

All Eyez On Me

The legend of arguably the most influential rapper of all time gets the big screen treatment, in the musical biopic “All Eyez On Me”. The story, directed by Benny Boom, tells the true and untold story of prolific rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur. The film follows Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr) from his early days in New York City hustling to make ends meet, to his evolution into being one of the world’s most recognized and influential voices alongside Notorious B.I.G (Jamal Woolard), all before his untimely death at the age of 25 in 1996. Against all odds, Shakur’s raw talent, powerful lyrics and revolutionary mind-set propelled him into becoming a cultural icon whose legacy continues to grow more than twenty years after his passing. “All Eyez On Me” is rated R for adult language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality.

For nearly two-and-a-half hours, Tupac Shakur lives on again in the latest rap music biopic that depicts for fans young and old to embrace the voice of the man who spoke for them. With previous efforts like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Notorious” leading the way for the genre, the idea of Shakur’s life on the big screen seems like a no-brainer, and while “All Eyez On Me” does play to an accurate depiction of the man’s brief time in the public eye, it fails to reach the uncovering satisfaction and production values of the previous two movies. Being a big Tupac fan myself, I was greatly looking forward to this film, but I can’t help but taste a distinct taste of disappointment coming out of the theater from people who were thirsty for a refreshing look at Tupac Shakur the man, not the superstar. For any great musical biopic, you must carry an equal importance of knowledge and entertainment to instill upon your audience. The film has no struggles with the latter, but greatly neglects the former by speeding through some trait defining moments in his life, in favor of fast-forward pacing that cuts short far too much.

On that distinct trait of the movie, the pacing early on feels like it’s in a hurry to get to a certain finishing point, rushing harshly through the earlier points of Tupac’s life living in the slums and searching for a positive male role model like so many other youths who support Tupac can relate to. It was almost surreal how the movie was already at the start of Tupac’s amateur rap career a half hour into the movie, and it begs the question why so many other biopics, both music and non, feel it is important to push through the backstory in exposition so you can see the entire growth of the central protagonist? For a movie that shocked me at being 135 minutes, there is simply no excuse as to why some of these moments and relationships couldn’t use further emphasis early on, as it would touch on more of the sentimental peaks that the film reaches for later on that simply isn’t there. One positive that I can say about this aspect is that the movie never drags, nor slugs along for too long. It constantly keeps getting back up on its feet, and signals one of the easiest two-plus hour sits that I have had in a long time. The third act of the movie is undoubtedly my favorite, as Tupac’s time with Death Row seems to be the established direction that the movie was focusing on for its majority. Everything during this time feels appropriately paced, and finally it doesn’t feel like our backs are up against the wall, despite a hearty run time that should offer no handicaps for storytelling measures.

As far as story goes, the film feels like it is catering more to the casual fans of Tupac, whom occasionally heard through the grapevine some chilling occurrences within the rapper’s past. I say this because so much of what makes up the material in this movie plays to the rhythms of a glorified television movie-of-the-week production, choosing to hit all of the high points in Tupac’s life, and leaving so little for what fills in the gaps along the way. My favorite parts were finally seeing behind the walls of Death Row Records, and the horrors that befell its clients every single day. I found the character of Shug Night to be the snake in the grass that waits for vulnerability to strike, a true villain in the purest definition. I mentioned the pacing earlier, and why it plays such an important role in this film in particular is because not every scene can be a shootout or a high-stakes fight. You need those scenes and sequences of exposition building along the way to fill in the gaps, but the trio of screenwriters that make up this script fire off one round after another at the audience, and after a while it feels muddled in repetition, even to the point of redundancy on this long-winded script that constantly keeps punching. No hardcore fan will take much new away from “All Eyez On Me”, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with opening the eyes to new fans, but I think it’s a huge misstep to ignore the droves of fans who will see this movie to get one step closer to their favorite rapper for one more night knowing that they may never get this chance again.

The editing too showcases possibly my least favorite aspect of editing films that I have mentioned a time or two in my reviews. I have never been a fan of fading to black until the end of the movie, but “All Eyez On Me” repeatedly chooses this route, damaging the cohesiveness of a script that jumps in many avid directions because a majority of it is being told in flashbacks. This often gives the film a bunch of scattered pieces feel, instead of one well-working machine, and I greatly wish that the production of this film would’ve instead ushered for quick cuts, as I feel it would do wonders with keeping up with the story chronologically. One example of such a mess in editing comes in Tupac meeting his eventual girlfriend in the third act. The scene in which they meet has them at odds, but after fading to black, they are immediately together and living together in the next scene. This is a fault on the writers as well, but the editing makes it feel like so much was left out from the night of their meeting that was ommitted from our presentation.

One immensely positive area for the film is in its Oscar-worthy casting direction that single-handedly blew me away for the attention to detail that often left me riveted. Casting director Winsome Sinclair has outdone any and everyone before her, ensembling a cast of mostly fresh faces that chillingly indulges in the likeness of their respective characters. To name just two, Shipp Jr is Tupac Shakur, make no mistakes about it. I don’t believe for a second that Demetrius Shipp Jr is his actual name because there were moments in the film when I actually thought footage from Tupac’s life had been taken to mold into this movie. While we could use a closer look at the person, Shipp Jr does more than enough in radiating the charisma of the rapper, juggling valuably the way he saw the world, as well as the naivity that came with being so young at the time of his death. “The Walking Dead’s” Danai Gurira steals the show however, as Tupac’s Mother Afeni. Early on in the film, Afeni struggles to be the positive adult influence in her children’s lives, and it’s clear the demons within her are often at war for a distilling anger that she feels towards this unfair world. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to watch Gurira steer this character to such a satisfying transformation; she’s essentially playing two halfs that make up this depthful complex African American woman, a theme that is often neglected in modern cinema.

THE VERDICT – “All Eyez On Me” steers a bit too conventionally to the rapper’s well known events in biography to ever open the eyes of anyone seeking a broader canvas of the revolutionary’s life behind the lens of a camera. There’s some truly compelling performances in the work of Shipp Jr, as well as Gurira that prove visually and emotionally that no one better could’ve been cast, but the muddled waters of shoddy editing, as well as a flawed script early on that pushes along without stopping, does very little to value the immense run time given to Boom’s production. The movie flounders this opportunity, but Keep Ya Head Up Tupac fans, the real story is in the lyrics of perhaps the most gifted MC to ever pick up a mic.

5/10

The Book of Henry

Things will never be the same for a small town neighborhood once a mother discovers a troubling book written by her son, called “The Book of Henry”. Sometimes things are not always what they seem, especially in the small suburban town where the Carpenter family lives. Single suburban mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) works as a waitress at a diner, alongside feisty family friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman). Her younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) is a playful 8-year-old. Taking care of everyone and everything in his own unique way is Susan’s older son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), age 11. Protector to his adoring younger brother and tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother, and through investments, of the family as a whole, Henry blazes through the days like a comet. Susan discovers that the family next door, which includes Henry’s kind classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler), has a dangerous secret, and that Henry has devised a surprising plan to help. As his brainstormed rescue plan for Christina takes shape in thrilling ways, Susan finds herself at the center of it. “The Book of Henry” is directed by Colin Trevorrow, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief adult language.

This movie has been the victim of a lot of negative reviews lately in the media, so going into it I kind of found myself at the questioning position of how a trailer with what I felt had so much promise could receive a critique as low as it has shamefully received, but we must remember that these trailer magicians are the same people who make money by presenting a less-than stellar film in attention-grabbing detail. Upon viewing “The Book of Henry”, I am here to add my two cents to the pile of growing naysayers for the film, as this movie is very much a disaster in everything from tone continuity to lack of moral integrity for characters that violently shift with each passing moment. It’s a jumbled experiment that is often trying to pass itself off as too many things at once, and because of such a concept, it often feels like you are watching three different acts from three different movies. Even the shining performances of three marvelously gifted child actors wasn’t enough to steer this film, as well as its condescending direction out of the woods with even so much as a compass to find its way.

Director Colin Trevorrow, as well as screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz should definitely be commended enough for crafting a story that does play with respect to these children that they are front-and-center of this unfolding melodrama, even if their ambitious reach of plot does over-exceed what should be a simplistic approach. What was appreciative for me was that this duo seem to understand and see children as this driving force within the world who will stop at nothing to help when they see danger. Hurwitz depicts the point of view of a pediatric as such that there is no filter with them in their wanting to get involved in compromising situations, a detail that any adult in the audience will wonder with curiosity where we went wrong in deciding to turn our heads to help those who are troubled along the way. It’s encouraging to see a director who sees the value in child actors, and doesn’t choose to wither away their increasing value in cinema. Because of such, Colin does succeed in crafting a surreal world where children can get involved with adult actions, a concept that only gets stronger the further you dive into “The Book of Henry”.

Where he goes wrong however, is in the increasing ridiculousness of cliches that continuously overstay their welcome, as well as the violent tonal shifts that cut this film’s momentum down at nearly every level. The light-hearted coming-of-age story of the first act was the only section of the film that felt natural to me. Trevorrow’s immediate introduction of our characters and their worlds is one that instantly pulled me in and had me demanding more for the personality in dialogue that leaps off of the page of the script. Then it all goes wrong. Instead of continuing with this vibrant feeling, the film turns into a crass melodrama due to a sudden plot twist that shakes everything up. I’m fine with different layers to a story in a movie, but when it’s as violently forced as this was, it can feel like it never finds its footing back to what made it great in the first place, a problem that sticks with this production. The third act throws everything at us, as the craziness of this plan between our protagonist and her children is one that not only annoyed me in logic, but also angered me in how much it repeats itself. Without spoiling much, sometimes you will have a scene in a movie where a character will listen to a tape, that character will say something, and then the person on the tape responds back to what they just said. It’s often used as a throwaway comedy line that is harmless, but here it happens every minute when this tape is on-screen. There’s geniuses among children, and there’s God-like characters. “The Book of Henry” casts its title character as the latter, and soon this ability to predict action and consequences in something as unpredictable as people, is one that does great harm to the believability of this once humane piece.

With twenty minutes left in the movie, and very little answered or satisfyingly concluded, Hurwitz moves fast in offering us a conclusion that really made me take a step back and compare how far we’ve come in the short 100 minute offering that rode a wave of unnecessary twists and turns to get here. That’s of course a back-handed compliment, because I found the ending of this movie to be bafflingly dull when compared to what was the lead-up before it. Everything is put together a little too “Matter-of-factly”, and it constantly left me with a bitter taste in my mouth of the juice never being worth the squeeze, a harrowing reality that starts to set in the more you think about the actions of this movie. On that thought, “The Book of Henry” feels like an irresponsible plan of mind-numbingly barbaric execution, instead of a gripping therapeutic plunge into the perplexities of grief and how it affects everyone else, a missed opportunity that could’ve played this film as slightly more cerebral than the outside-of-the-glass treatment that we got here.

What does keep my score on this film from falling too far down is in the charming circumference of this ensemble cast that each add wonders to their respective characters. Lieberher has been a star in the making for quite some time, but the momentum of the film rests solely in his small hands, as he portrays Henry as a boy genius who never feels rude or condescending. Tremblay relies more on the dramatic pulse of the film to get his points across, and I’ve never seen a child release the tears so heart-achingly surreal as he has in films like this and 2015’s “Room”. Maddie Ziegler, despite not having many line reads in the movie, is a force to be reckoned with for how she visually commands the presence of this tortured girl next door. Christina is someone who lives out her worst nightmares every single day of her life, and Ziegler doesn’t falter this in facial responses that define the absence of positivity. Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Dean Norris, all also buy into what Trevorrow is selling, so much so that their adult counterparts blend satisfyingly well enough to never feel like they are cutting in on the children’s time to work their craft. Norris is great as a villain, but does so without ever needing to come off as some Lifetime Television cliche. The worst kind of antagonist is the guy we should trust the most, and it’s very unsettling to know just what is going on under the roof of the police chief’s house that has left the surrounding patrons shattered in its wake.

THE VERDICT – “The Book of Henry” is three movies for the price of one, and only one of them should’ve been interesting enough to continue. Because of an overabundance in tone shifts, as well as fourth-dimensional breaks in logic, Trevorrow’s latest crashes and burns fast, leaving a finished product that feels slightly incomplete and muddled in seemingly unnecessary directions. The film definitely crafts an original take on child-first stories, but does so in a way that robs those intentions by the increasingly silly plot mechanics that would rather be the umpteenth “Home Alone” rather than the first “Book of Henry”.

4/10

Cars 3

Pixar Studios sets out once again to prove that the race isn’t over until lightning strikes, in the third chapter of the animated trilogy “Cars 3”. Racing is starting to become tough for Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), as he is becoming one of the oldest race cars on the race track and a generation of new rookies are coming into the evolving racing world. After he is pushed out of the race track, he begins a road of redemption that inspires his aging model to turn back the clock once more. For Lightning to prove that he is still a top racer, he is going to need help from an eager young female car named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who is to help and train Lightning. He’s not quitting until he shows the world that he is still a top racer, and silences the younger, faster doubters on the track who want him gone. “Cars 3” is written and directed by Brian Fee, and is rated PG for scenes of disastrous peril.

It isn’t reaching too ambitiously, but “Cars 3” is a greater improvement to that of “Cars 2” that flopped at nearly every turn, conjuring up Pixar’s absolute worst movie to date. However, the third film in this trilogy proves that no sequel can quite attain the greatness of the first movie that throughout stayed competently focused, and excited us for what could follow in this seemingly post-apocalyptic world run by automobiles. It is a step up, but one that comes with great caution for how not to introduce an ensemble cast with a brief 104 minute run time. That may seem lengthy for this plot, but when you consider how much material this movie truly has, it’s but a fraction of what is needed to smoothly depict. Brian Fee’s film is one that starts out a lap or two behind, due to a rocky first half of the movie that greatly overcomplicates and convolutes the importance of exposition in all of its flimsy details. Because of this, the film often lacks consistency in momentum, and finds itself trying to catch up for the rest of the film, nearly pulling it off in the final act that finally plays to the dramatic pulse in this kids movie, but still flounders away the possibilities of its gripping material and breathtaking visual displays that up the ante to this once prosperous franchise.

Simply put, there are far too many characters in this movie, and that is often the root for the cause of every problem associated with this movie. There is some commendable voice work, mostly in that of Wilson and Alonzo who radiate an innocent friendship over the grounds of the teacher becoming the student. But all admirations aside, the first two acts of this movie constantly halt plot progression each and every time to introduce a character who doesn’t have a lot of weight to the importance of this blossoming comeback story. Sure the immediate value is obvious with most of them, but by the film’s conclusion you will wonder why they even bothered. Because of this, our antagonist and Lightning’s up-and-coming new blood to the race track feels virtually ignored for the entirety of this movie, only occasionally bringing him back as a reminder to the audience who have long since forgotten about him. Even more confusing is how this film manages to pile in so much progression during the first act, but then screeches itself to a grinding halt during the second, trying to balance out misfiring pacing that feels like it’s riding on two bad tires. Without developing the antagonist plot, the film rarely feels like it’s building to something bigger, and often sifts through a second act that will bore audience members of every age bracket. Believe me, I know, my auditorium carried on conversations without ever thinking twice about it, a sure sign of the disconnect from film to viewer that only maximizes as “Cars 3” carries on.

What the film does do well is conjuring up a genuine comeback story that does have some emotional grit to it, particularly during the final half hour that does remind audiences of the weight that these Pixar movies can respect audiences with. There are the obvious measures of the occasional music montage playing to the training of Lightning, as well as the subplot that involves our hero finding himself in ways that he never deemed necessary, but what impressed me more was the surreal aspect that we as stars of our sport are someday told that we can no longer play the game, and when that day comes it’s in your hands with how you attack it. This was the aspect of the film that drew me in during the trailers, but unfortunately didn’t arise until nearly the end of the movie. I mentioned earlier that this is the strong point of the movie for me, and that’s because the movie doesn’t play it like your typical Disney style ending, a fact that I greatly appreciated having seen stories like this play out quite a few times. It does kind of pull the wool over the eyes of its audience, in leading the film down a familiar path, then throwing a curveball, but it’s one that I greatly appreciated despite the rules of the switch leaving a huge plot hole or two when it comes to the rules of racing.

At least the animation springs forth an early contender for best visual presentation of the year, spiraling us through scene after scene of breathtaking speed and force that constantly kept me gripping on. Pixar Studios have become so embracing of the live action backdrops in their stories that it now feels like these polarizing characters, complete with eye-popping layers, are now present in our own world. The ability to make these vehicles stand-out might feel on the same field as a movie like last year’s “The Good Dinosaur”, but it works more accordingly here because the cars often feel like the foreign concept in a land as we know it is inhibited by humans, so their conflicting volumes in colorful depiction serve to a greater purpose to single out the characters first and allow the viewer to soak in the vibrancy of the pixelated palate around them. Nobody does this better than Pixar, and it serves as a testament to award-winning effects work when we as an audience have to occasionally stop to ask the question if these three-dimensional characters are being super-imposed on a two-dimensional canvas to feed into a real world backdrop.

THE VERDICT – While “Cars 3” is a serviceable enough improvement from that of its predecessor, there’s a great conflict in the flow of consistency that renders it as just another red flag to an overall disappointing series of films made by a studio that often over-exceeds. Had the first half of the film tried a little harder in adding something in addition to the impeccable visual stylings and Lightning’s battle with time, the film’s triumphant third act would feel more like a victory lap. But instead, Fee’s film lacks the intensity of the emotional gut-punch that a conceptual offering like this one promised in the trailers, moving absolutely nowhere with a tank running on empty.

5/10

Rough Night

Scarlett Johansson, Kate Mckinnon, Zoe Kravits, Ilana Glazer, and Jillian Bell are five best friends whose one “Rough Night” puts them on the wrong side of the law. Five best friends from college reunite 10 years later for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami, involving drunken debauchery that is their one last thrill before Jess (Johansson) ties the knot. Their non-stop hard partying takes a hilariously dark turn when they accidentally kill a male stripper during his musical routine, forcing the friends to think fast in order to avoid serious jail time. Amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up, they’re ultimately brought closer together when it matters most, and at the very least should inspire some hilarious bridesmaid speeches in the long run. “Rough Night” is co-written and directed by Lucia Aniello in his first big screen offering, and is rated R for crude sexual content, adult language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images.

Raunch comedies are a dime a dozen these days. Typically you will take a comedy with a bunch of promising talents and combine it with sophomoric humor to test the boundaries of an R-rating. Now the ladies get their turn with “Rough Night”, a film that borders a little too closely to the 1997 Christian Slater film “Very Bad Things”, in that they are both movies that take place over the course of a bachelor party, and a stripper ends up dead. Beyond those identical plots, “Rough Night” paves its own path by taking a so-so script and elevating it even higher than it rightfully should be because of the performances and chemistry of its five leading ladies. The film doesn’t push the sadistic envelope quite as far as its male comparison did two decades ago, but its charms lie in its ability to never take itself too seriously, and focus from square one on the comedy first. This is the kind of film that is easy to just kind of turn your brain off and allow yourself to succumb to the entertaining nature of a R-rated, free from the watered down humor of kids cinema that can wear thin on the intelligence of its audience, and that is where I think this film will resonate best; in its female moviegoers who are seeking comparisons to their own wolfpack of friends for the many wild nights that they have shared. Because of that, this one is full proof for the ladies, and one that they will undoubtedly hand over their cash to see in droves.

What I appreciate about a film like “Rough Night” is that it doesn’t allow itself to be something that it isn’t. Comedies these days can sometimes think that two hours is the way to go, keeping in every bit of sequences that should’ve rightfully been put on the cutting room floor for DVD extras. The script here is written by Paul Downs, a guy who actually portrays the leading male in this movie. If you’re like me, you can smirk at the guts of a guy to not only cast himself as the boyfriend of Scarlett Johansson, but also to promote himself into more than forty minutes of this movie. There are things about Downs style of writing that I appreciate, and the things that are better left to a minimal. On the former, I certainly picked up on the delightful irony that the women portray the men in this film, with all of their drunken debauchery and careless antics, and the men played the women, in all of their subtle and cozy surroundings to embrace bottles of wine. It’s genius because it doesn’t necessarily have to be too overbearing to be obvious, and I think Downs should be commended for giving a voice to this feminist tribe. Where he could use some work however is in the scatterbrains plotting of subplots that can often overstay their welcome. Whenever the film isn’t focused on the females, there is a side story developing for Paul to track down his fiance because he is legitimately worried about her well-being and their relationship. This perspective slowed down the momentum each and every time I felt comfortable to kick back and enjoy myself, and will most likely be the brake pads for those who take this one in. Most of the material falls flat during this time and feels raunchy for the hell of it, without much creativity to push it further.

That is where we get to the comedy of the film, which surprisingly gave me several hearty chuckles, despite not being my go-to brand of humor. The film feels like it flows best when it is sticking to Downs method of mayhem that is unraveling before our very eyes, and less with scenes of long-winded improv that can sometimes drown on for far too long. For my money, the strongest material blossomed when the girls were each getting their respective characters across, and just indulged in a pizza and booze hangout with one another. Honestly, if you didn’t have a plot to go with this film, I would be fine, as these characters (Minus one who I will get to in a second) are just a riot to be around, and the camera serves as that lucky eavesdropping that has served as our invitation to this debauchery that proves the ladies can do it just as well. Because these are human characters, their sometimes stupid decisions can seem genuine, and there were many times when I couldn’t wait to see how a scene played out with what felt like me thinking several minutes ahead of where our girls hadn’t even thought about yet.

On the subject of characters, most are delightful to embrace in their melting pot of differences that make up this clan, leaving only one girl who I couldn’t stand, and that came in the form of Jillian Bell as best friend Alice. Bell is usually one of my favorite parts of any film because her dry stick can sometimes be the wise-cracking sarcastic reality that a blown out scene can rightfully need, Unfortunately for her, Alice is a wreck of a human being, and serves as that one friend who the others complain about when they aren’t around. Don’t act like you don’t know one. If this isn’t enough, Downs writes her into a kind of “Bridesmaids” subplot where her character reeks of jealousy towards Mckinnon’s engaging Pippa. Speaking of which, Kate gives probably her best big screen performance to date, not only carrying much of the comedic backbone to the film, but also in a solid actors performance that showcases her holding an Australian accent for the entirety of the film. The accent can sometimes crack, but as far as accomplishments for her career goes, acting is the next step to take, as she has already proven she can steal laughs from anyone in the audience, during a movie that she is leap years ahead of. Mckinnon doesn’t feel like she is being used as just a reactionary character here like she was in “Ghostbusters” or “Masterminds”, and Pippa often feels like the breath of fresh air for this band of women who have sometimes spent far too much time together.

THE VERDICT – “Rough Night” thankfully is just a clever title, as this R-rated raunch-com offers the perfect 95 minute getaway for the ladies seeking laughs, thrills, and most importantly escape in their female-led comedies. For me, the film works best when its focus is solely on the ladies and less with a male subplot that should’ve been trimmed in favor of building momentum. The script is kind of all over the place in terms of structure, but what settles it down is the off-handed dialogue that constantly made me do a second take, as well as the undeniable chemistry of its female cast who are not afraid to take chances. Nothing of breakthrough for the genre, but a good time to waste the night away.

6/10

Lady Macbeth

Rural England 1865 is the place and time for this sizzling spin on the classic tale of “Lady Macbeth”. Catherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman locked in a loveless arranged marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), begins a passionate affair with one of the servants on the estate named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Alexander and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank) attempt to put an end to the lovers infidelity, but the couple are willing to go to great lengths in order to keep their relationship alive. The situation becomes increasingly complicated, and Catherine is forced to make a difficult decision to save her reputation and her privileged life. “Lady Macbeth” is directed by first time helming, William Oldroyd, and is rated R for sexual situations involving nudity, violent material involving gore, adult language, scenes of drug use, and frightening scenes of intensity.

Movies centering around the kind of coming into power storylines are often depicted in such a way that feels inspiring or at the very least beneficial to the audience at home in propelling a character who they can get behind regardless of their morals. Cue “Lady Macbeth”, an hour-and-a-half of greed and seduction for what could essentially be considered the dawn of the modern age woman, and her rise to power that comes at such a cost. For such a brief film that flies by like a jet engine, this movie filled me with a vast array of emotions that left me reeling for hours after I saw the film. The movie’s screenplay is loosely based on the book “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, and while the movie hangs tight with the general outline of its literary counterpart, there’s so much about it that screenwriter Alice Birch updates to infuse its often times dull page-turner into a millennial twist that leaves its audience on the edge of its seat through each and every transpiring event that polarizes our central protagonist.

The very style of this picture goes a long way not only in defining human response and atmosphere, but also in the very isolated depiction that this film focuses on for treatment of the female specimen during such a long and forgotten age. The shot selection is gorgeous, focusing on shot framing that singles out Catherine and makes us focus solely on the pain surrounding her dreary routine. She stands front and center at every scene that plays out before her, and often times is our voice of digestion for the life that tends to move on without her consent. It’s true that this movie is focused almost entirely on one character, and kind of leaves everyone else to steer their own course, but I think it’s important to frame Catherine while these unspeakable acts are happening around her, so as to inform and incite the curiosity of the viewer who takes it all in. The film has a refreshing way of not commending the concepts of infidelity, nor singling out Catherine for the decisions that she makes, and I find that impartial direction to be one of great taste for Oldroyd, who feels like he has accomplished so much in only his first time behind the lens. I was flabbergasted to discover that a man directed this movie, as there’s such an overwhelming feeling of female revolutionary that encapsulates the picture, a sign that we’re headed in the right direction for both sides of the polished human gender coin.

As I mentioned earlier, the film flies by, and constantly keeps us moving through ambitious mountain that Catherine must climb to seize the life that she wants. If I have one weakness for the movie, it’s in the first act when everything feels like it zooms through far too quickly, neglecting to soak in the undesired marriage of Catherine and Alexander to its truly barbaric potential. The affair happens quite early on in the movie, and keeps happening, reaching four times of sexual intimacy at only a half hour into the movie to relate how rushed this opening feels, limiting anything to reach its true developmental purpose. Thankfully, it does slow down in the next act, when we truly start to see this woman blossoming into the wolf of sorts who she was destined to become. The final thirty minutes throw a couple of wrenches into the mix, and reminded me that no matter where I thought this film was headed, my guessing was often premature for the pulse-setting finale that left me tingling in speechless release. Because of such, “Lady Macbeth” surely isn’t going to show up on anyone’s feel good films of the year list, but it is one that speaks volumes to the lesson of people not being allowed to love who they love, a stance that even more than two hundred years later still troubles our own society.

Much of that has to do with the performance of Florence Pugh, who is an early favorite for this critic in the Best Actress category. This woman is a force to be reckoned with, and anyone in the way of Catherine will be run over by this steaming bull who fears no man or force of God. Pugh’s portrayal at times feels like we took a woman in 2017 and placed her in the 1800’s to answer the age old question of what these two opposing eras would feel like, to our chagrin it’s everything that you could want in a leading lady who balks at the rules. It takes no time for Catherine to understand the undesirable situation that she has been forced into, so immediately she takes matters into her own hands and spits back what life has presented her with. Florence stays quite stone-faced throughout the movie, but this character direction speaks volumes to her lack of empathy and her cold disdain, which she unleashes with no remorse. I would go further with the cast, but there’s no point. It’s not that the supporting cast are particularly terrible, it’s just that Florence Pugh acts in and constructs the stage for her to shine on. A one woman tour de force who slips under your skin to conjure up more than just one translation.

THE VERDICT – Through bold and dark twists that hold the hands of the audience and press it right up to feel the power, “Lady Macbeth” is an unnerving and often times insinuating intensive from William Oldroyd, who depicts the consequences of privilege and power with such heart-shattering volume to leave all who embrace it devastated within its wake. Pugh herself commands Catherine with the kind of impeccable precision for that silent fire burning within, and it’s when she reaches her boiling point that we know a star has been born. This movie could use about fifteen more minutes to digest some of the rapid fire first act movements, but its unclenching second half of the picture has enough shock-and-awe to make us (like Catherine) forget about meaningless measures in the past.

9/10

My Cousin Rachel

The 1951 novel of the same name gets its second big screen treatment, this time more than sixty years after the previous. “My Cousin Rachel” tells the story of a young Englishman named Phillip (Sam Claflin) who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms, and toes a devastating line of temptation as he seeks the clarity beneath it all. The two engage in a mental game for the land, riches, and romance involved in this particularly ugly situation that has developed between them and their neighboring friends of the family. “My Cousin Rachel” is written and directed by South African film director Roger Michell, and is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong adult language.

I myself have never read the literary original that this screenplay is based upon, but with reading reviews of others experiences with the novel has taught me that this is an accurate adaptation. With that said, this is a movie that relies heavily upon a mystery surrounding our central characters that has to do with whether Rachel is or is not the evil temptress that she has been made out to be. The film pushes this narrative because it is the key that unlocks all of the mystery surrounding the untimely death of Phillip’s guardian. The problem with this shaky concept is that this shouldn’t be a mystery at all to the audience who have faithfully paid attention, because most of the proof is in the pudding. Once you figure out the answer to this proverbial question, “My Cousin Rachel” tends to lose a lot of its charms midway through the movie, when you realize that this screenplay is focused on so little else to keep itself moving. Even still, once the answer is made frustratingly apparent during the final scenes, the screenplay did manage to tack on some closing surprises that changed my opinion from the once evident direction that it felt like we were once headed, finishing strong enough to earn itself rightfully back into rental territory.

From a scope perspective, this is a very gorgeous production, taking place during the late 19th century in Europe. We are treated to some very surreal establishing shots with endless displays of green landscapes and mountains that tend to accurately depict the kind of backdrops that envelope this picture. The main setting takes place in this enormous mansion that takes on the compliments of atmospheric natural lighting to make it feel more authentic. The night shots use candles to illuminate the property, and this speaks volumes to the kind of darkness and mystery that plagues this bickering family. The camera work too was simply stunning, choosing to focus more on some long take back-and-forth perspectives, instead of using choppy editing that can sometimes come across as too polished of a feature for this place in time. Because we embrace most long-winded dialogue gasps in their entirety, it can accredit so much more to the kind of heavy performances that Weisz and Claflin offer throughout.

On the subject of those roles, Claflin and Weisz create vibrant, albeit treacherous music together, commanding the presence of the screen each time their intentions contrast those of the opposition. Claflin’s Phillip is very much a boy who becomes a man during this picture. His abilities to have seen the world have almost made him brash and slightly arrogant when it comes to returning to his homeland, but he is quickly humbled upon meeting his mysterious cousin. As a whole, Sam does a strong job portraying this character, but Phillip is written in such a way that doesn’t translate well with today’s modern males, and because of such, if you’re like me you will find Phillip to obnoxious and even a little cringe-worthy midway through the movie. As a protagonist, he folds like a cheap suit, and it’s easy to see who commands this mental chess game. That winner of course would be Weisz, who dons Rachel as this strong force despite her ever really having to get her hands dirty. So much of what makes you boil for Rachel is the way Weisz’s long and cold stares appear frequently throughout the movie, and you really get a sense that this is a character who knows how to get what she wants without much effort. Their blossoming romance is something that we as an audience know is bad news, but you won’t believe where these two prized actors take them right before the credits roll.

As a script, I commend “My Cousin Rachel” for evolving with each passing act that changes up the kind of dance that our two characters orchestrate. The first act is probably my personal favorite because it is during this time when they are strangers to one another, and feeling out the other one to understand their ulterior motives. I mentioned earlier that this turns into a mental chess game of sorts, and that’s an entirely accurate representation because there’s a power struggle early on when each character tries to one-up the other, and it leads to some pretty uncomfortable and awkward exchanges that simulate anger, sorrow, and vulnerability so uncanny. The second act switches it up once we start to see the vast change in Phillip’s demeanor towards Rachel, and suddenly we as an audience feel like we are on the wrong side of the moral coin, far from where we once stood in this fight. When you step back to soak it all in, you really have to appreciate the slow unraveling of this metaphorical poison that took over the room. The final act sets up a beautiful confrontation that does pay off….sort of. If you’re someone like me who appreciates the true irony of any situation, you’ll adore it. But if you’re someone who expects physicality in results, “My Cousin Rachel” might not leave you on the best of circumstances. Either way, the script lagged very little for me, and feels appropriate to close it out around the 100 minute mark.

THE VERDICT – “My Cousin Rachel” often tries to float a mystery that simply isn’t there. Even the most mind-wandering of film detectives will fish out the answers to this story long before our central protagonist has, and that’s perhaps the biggest hill to climb for Michell’s slice of sizzle and seduction. It’s a solid representation of its source material, mainly due to the dedicated performances of Claflin and an entrancing Weisz, who both dominate the screen time in getting across two polar opposite characters with the common bond of grief. It’s a stern reminder that where there is smoke, there is often fire, and this is one flame too hot to ignore.

6/10

The Mummy

Long before there was a D.C or Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was a Universal Monsters Universe, and “The Mummy” kicks that off for a new generation of moviegoers. Though safely entombed in a crypt deep beneath the unforgiving desert, the ancient queen Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) whose destiny was unjustly taken from her, is awakened in our current day, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia and terrors that defy human comprehension. From the sweeping sands of the Middle East through hidden labyrinths under modern-day London, one man (Tom Cruise) who survives a terrifying plane ride, knows the cryptic code to ending her reign of terror before it goes global, leaving a wake of devastation to those who cross her. “The Mummy” is directed by Alex Kurtzman, and is rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity.

If I could think of one term to describe the newest remake of the Universal property “The Mummy”, it would be disjointed. That’s right, Universal has gotten the motivation to once again revamp its classic series of films that include Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman to name a few. But “The Mummy” takes the court first to see if there is a place for these series of legendary films in today’s modern theater, and upon my first take of it, I have to say that the next movie has a long way to go before it can be deemed viewer-ready. Considering there are four different writers for this film, it’s certainly easy to comprehend why there are such vast and jarring displays of tonal shifts in the movie that do its continuity absolutely no favors. From my perspective, one of these writers has definitely worked on Tom Cruise action flicks before, and his voice speaks the loudest in this film. There’s a dark comedy writer who’s reminders that they exist constantly halt the movie with some of the cheesiest deliveries that alienate everything about the intended tone of this story. There’s also the faithful student of the game who has studied the original, and knows what kind of movie this needs to be. Sadly, the latter’s voice is far too limited for this offering to ever be taken seriously.

For the first act of the movie, I was surprisingly glued in to the free-flowing pacing, and gorgeous detailed set pieces that really set this exotic world up in a non-limited budget of capacity. What happens next feels like a huge step back because the film can never feel fully focused enough to continue the positivity to this structure and historical significance, jumping in so many endless directions that often consumes the bulk of what should be the title antagonist’s time on camera. For anyone expecting that this movie is going to be a chapter in the continuous trend of feminist starring roles, think again. In fact, I was greatly surprised as to how minimal both of the female leads in this movie actually played into the big stakes. Sure, Ahmanet is the central antagonist here, but midway through the movie we start to turn into a different direction, one that would rather sell the next movie in the Universal Dark Franchise instead of focus on the areas that this one so desperately needs to sell its story and characters. Ahmanet is violently pushed to the side, and the movie grinds to a screeching halt full of other characters who I couldn’t care less about. Things don’t improve by the finale for Ahmanet either, as the movie has a not so subtle way at establishing how a powerful woman is no match for a powerful man, a sentiment that doesn’t do itself any favors in modern progression.

Then there’s the painful string of exposition that feels like an infomercial that constantly takes away from what is transpiring on screen. I mentioned in my “King Arthur” review that the movie was plagued by countless flashback scenes, and so to is the problem with “The Mummy”. Instead of allowing this story to naturally flow without spoon-feeding everything to the audience, the film endlessly beats us over the head with trying to understand each shot that we previously saw in the opening fifteen minutes of the movie, which itself was ANOTHER EXPOSITION SCENE. I’m not complaining about exposition, because it plays a vital part in the evolution of the story in a film, but when it is done this non-chalantly, I have to wonder just how dumb they that they take their audience. While this movie doesn’t suffer as much as “King Arthur”, it is like constantly being told the same story that you’ve already heard a couple of times earlier. The good news is that if you missed a scene for a bathroom break, or you just fell asleep like I nearly did, this film will continue to make sure you’re covered and never lead you off of a beaten path.

The rules themselves that the movie establishes are kind of inconsistent and often times lead to some major plot holes that had me scratching my head occasionally throughout the film. Without much spoilers, Ahmanet does command Tom Cruise throughout the film after getting into his brain early on. The problem with this is it’s rarely brought up to her advantage. If she can do all of these things and seduce him to paths that go against his logical thinking, then how long does a movie really have to be that competes an Egyptian queen against an everyman thief? I also don’t understand why she needs a king at all. She has all of the power, as well as the army to back her up, so why does she seek a male suitor to stand beside her? The film’s best way to explain it is that “Well, she just wants one”. Male dominance rules in a movie, boys and girls. Then there’s the visual sight gags that gave me plenty to unintentionally laugh about. A character is captured in this film, and the choice of shot angle for this prisoner scene probably should’ve been re-done because their wrist is about half of the size of the shackle that covers it, making an easy escape that definitely shouldn’t have taken as long as it did.

Now that I’ve bitched about the negatives of the film for long enough, lets discuss some positives I had, kicking it off with some luxurious set pieces and action sequences that really riveted my experience from time to time. Even if this isn’t supposed to be an action movie, there’s enough ammunition and free-falling objects at the screen to constitute this one as the next “Mission Impossible” sequel. A couple of my favorites involved a spinning bus that came at Cruise’s character, and required him to jump into to stay safe, a couple of sandstorm scenes whose immensity in volume really upped the ante when compared to that of the 1999 Mummy movie that did the same thing, and of course the airplane crash sequence that was seen in the trailers. On the latter, this sequence is beautifully detailed for how it tangles with gravity and the fast-thinking logic that it takes to even come out of this paralyzed, let alone alive. This scene didn’t take too many liberties with the camera angles, nor too many quick cut edits, so I appreciate it for at least being a textbook example of how to shoot action in a movie that is anything but.

The cast was very hit or miss for me, especially in that of the starring roles that weren’t always given the time that they deserved. I’ve read a lot about Cruise being praised for his commitment to this role, but I just don’t get it. To me, it felt very conventional and slightly phoned in during the exposition-heavy scenes that require his reaction to get across their urgency. It just feels like he couldn’t care less about what is transpiring, and while his performance isn’t terrible, I just don’t think Cruise was the right guy for this role. Sofia Boutella makes the most of what limited time she has as this title character. As Ahmanet, it’s refreshing to see a female take on the mummy character, and her devastation pull is only surpassed by her cunning charms of seduction to locate and terminate her prey. Russell Crowe was also good for me, hamming it up as a character who I won’t mention so as not to spoil it for you. I will say that Crowe is in the film, even though the movie acts like we didn’t see his face a hundred times in the trailers, trying to keep his facial identity a secret until midway through the movie. Crowe’s responses do sometimes feel overboard, but when you find out who he is to this story, you will easily understand why this stance remains faithful to whom he represents. The scenes with Cruise and Crowe together on-screen are wondrous, even if they take away from what should be the prime focus.

THE VERDICT – Universal’s opening investment into crafting the monsters of the golden age for a new generation lacks the kind of campy thrills or tragedy in character that makes its predecessors such worthy classics. Kurtzman’s film stumbles as a hurried mess that often feels like three different movies Frankensteined into one disjointed monster, and the result is a product that neither resurrects nor rises itself from the tomb where it laid sleeping. Surprisingly misogynistic, despite its progression of female focus.

4/10